Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
What’s more perfect for my one hundredth book review than going back to Ancient Egypt? I think it’s no secret that I love Ancient Egypt–Egyptian mythology was, quite honestly, my first story. (Explains so much, doesn’t it?) Nefertiti has been on my reading list for quite some time–other book bloggers have enjoyed it, and it was even featured on the ads section of Feministing for a while (and they’re quite picky about their ads). As I was shelving one afternoon at the library, I looked up at the next row of shelves over the books I was working on, and there it was. Naturally, I checked it out as soon as my volunteer shift was over.
Nefertiti follows the titular character’s rise to power through the eyes of her sister, Mutnodjmet. Nieces of the Queen of Egypt, ambitious Nefertiti has felt destined to be Queen–and more–of Egypt, while Mutny would prefer a quiet life tending to her gardens as well as the sick. When Nefertiti’s initial intended, Prince Thutmosis, dies mysteriously, Nefertiti is handpicked by Queen Tiye to marry his brother, Prince Amunhotep. But Amunhotep is an unstable man who eschews war, including the defense of Egypt’s borders, and focuses with an unearthly passion on elevating the sun god Aten above the traditional gods of Egypt. Tied to the court by her family and yearning for a quiet life with the general she loves, Mutny must find a way to stand up to the most powerful couple in Egypt–or forever live in submission.
The Other Boleyn Girl and Nefertiti both use the same narrative “gimmick”; a historically unknown but existing sister of the historical figure tells the story, a woman who dislikes court intrigue and only wants a quiet life with the man she loves, despite the machinations of her family. But I have to admit, that’s my favorite way to introduce an original character into the historical record–it keeps the character from being too important to not be a bigger of the historical record but also keeps them in the right circles to be able to tell these stories. But I think that’s where the similarities end–Tudor England and Ancient Egypt are, naturally, quite different, and much of Nefertiti’s scheming involves destroying the power of Kiya, Amunhotep’s other wife, and playing on the love of the people. If you did enjoy The Other Boleyn Girl, you’ll probably like Nefertiti, but they’re not the same thing at all.
I quite liked Mutny as a character, as she grows from a child to a woman capable of standing up to her sister and even Pharoah. Her romance with General Nahktmin is how I like my romance–organic, sweet, and low-key. It’s especially nice contrasted against the scheming, lies, and co-dependency of Nefertiti and Amunhotep. As far as Nefertiti and Amunhotep is concerned, the term camp comes to mind. Their behavior is certainly not outside the realm of reality, but they are prone to dramatics. Nefertiti, especially, tends to see Mutny as a built-in servant instead of a sister, and deeply resents Nahktmin for taking her sister away from her. But it’s understandable–the royal family has ridiculous amounts of power and wealth, and Amunhotep gets more and more unstable as the story progresses. Nefertiti is an ambitious woman with a jealous streak, and not even her family can stop her. But she’s nicely complex, as the novel occasionally hints at what she’s given up and lost for power. The rest of the cast is nicely fleshed out without taking attention from the main characters; of special note is Ipu, Mutny’s body servant who becomes her dearest friend. The evolution of their relationship is absolutely lovely.
The novel takes Nefertiti’s rise to the throne as its plot and thus glosses over her last years, which I would have liked to see, but I understand why Moran did so. In a note towards the end, Moran notes that we know very little about Nefertiti’s last years, especially where it overlaps with the life of Tutankhamun, Amunhotep’s successor. We watch as Nefertiti schemes and manipulates her way towards greater power, ignoring the advice of her family, and catching a little of Amunhotep’s craziness herself. I find Nefertiti to also be paced well–by the time you start getting tired of life at court, Mutny has wrested control of her life away from her sister in a heart-wrenching turn of events. The time that passes between chapters grows longer as the novel progresses, but it feels natural–Mutny visits court late in the novel rather than living there.
Moran brings Egypt alive in a good, but not perfect, way here–it’s accessible and well done, but it is not wholly immersive. It allows the casual reader to easily identify with these characters, and only occasionally brings in Egyptian ways of thinking to remind the reader they’re in Ancient Egypt. I particularly liked how Moran depicted the Egyptian obsession with death–when Mutny leaves home to visit her sister, her husband cheerfully decides to spend his newfound free time working on their tombs. There’s great drama in Amunhotep’s struggle to force Egypt to bow to a new god, and it allows us an interesting look at religion in Ancient Egypt as Mutny contrasts the newly built city of Amarna, Amunhotep’s capital, with Thebes, the traditional capital she herself lives in towards the end. In the end, it’s very similar to the reaction I have to Nefertiti–it’s quite good, but lacks a certain depth I would have liked to see.
Bottom line: Nefertiti takes the narrative “gimmick” of The Other Boleyn Girl and runs with it, giving us a wonderful heroine, the quiet Mutny, and showing us a divided Egypt. However, it lacks a certain depth that would have made it great. It’s still quite good, though.
I rented this book from the public library.